For those of us who scribble, today is an important date in the calendar for it is the Feast of St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), patron saint of writers and journalists. Yet before you tune out, gentle reader who is a non-Christian, I’d like you to consider some of what he wrote about other subjects. Like Count Baldassare Castiglione, whose writing inspired and continues to inspire some of the subjects considered on this blog, St. Francis has quite a lot to say about how people should behave in society – which, as it happens, is still very relevant to us today, and particularly with respect to the friendships and attachments we form.
The reason St. Francis de Sales was named as the patron saint of writers and journalists, by Pope Pius XI, was not only because he wrote a number of important books, but also because of his methods. In his efforts to evangelize and persuade people to come into the Church he often hand-wrote what today we would call flyers or tracts, which he would slip under the front door of homes who would not let him come in and speak to them. One could also perhaps accuse him of starting the habit of leaving Chinese take-away menus under windshield wipers, but that is beside the point.
I have written previously about how St. Francis de Sales had some very sensible thoughts about fashion, of all things, which you might not expect from a man who was Bishop of Geneva and named a Doctor of the Church because of his significant theological writing and scholarship. He recognized the reality that most people are not going to dress like nuns and hermits, particularly people who are well-to-do and have obligations to perform in society. It is interesting that his thoughts, following the Reformation, are exactly in line with Castiglione’s own thinking and writing on this subject, before the Reformation took place. The world may have changed dramatically during that intervening century, but the idea of good taste being marked by some degree of restraint is one which runs like – if you will forgive the expression – a thread through their work, and even up through the work of couturiers like Coco Chanel or Giorgio Armani.
Another area on which the two men agree has to do with what we might refer to as the formation of “serious” friendships, as opposed to superficial ones based on unimportant matters. Thinking that because two people like to follow the career of the same pop tart or the same sports team that said persons are, in fact, friends, is putting the cart before the horse. It may be a basis to begin building a friendship, but it cannot be the only basis for a true one.
Today one can look at the “Trending” column on Twitter, gossip magazines, or frankly even at most formerly-legitimate news outlets, and see all sorts of reports and commentary about entertainers, celebrities, or people who are famous for being famous. However this frivolity is nothing new, as St. Francis noted back in the 17th century. In criticizing the empty-headed people of his own day, he notes:
They do not at all hesitate to say: Such a gentleman has many virtues and perfections, for he dances gracefully, he plays well at all sorts of games, he dresses fashionably, he sings delightfully, speaks eloquently, and is good looking; thus mountebanks esteem those the most perfect among themselves who are the greatest buffoons But as all these things regard the senses, so the friendships which proceed from them are termed sensual, vain, and frivolous, and deserve rather the name of foolish fondness than of friendship; such are the ordinary friendships of young people, which are grounded on mustaches, locks, and glances, on clothes, affectation and chatter; friendships suited to the age of those lovers whose virtues are yet only tendrils, and their judgment only in the bud; such friendships are only temporary.
Perhaps today one would be hard-pressed to find a friendship grounded in a mutual appreciation of mustaches, though admittedly stranger things have happened. St. Francis is not saying that it is a bad thing to strike up a conversation with someone based on a mutual appreciation of or opinion on something frivolous, such as a television show. What he is saying is that those who never begin to discuss more serious matters with the people whom they spend time with are not really forming friendships at all, even if they refer to such relationships that way. These types of relationships have no real value, and can lead to a lowering of standards, as well as encouraging laziness, bad behavior and poor choices.
Similarly, Castiglione recognized the difference between frivolous attachment and serious friendship, and noted that those who associated with frivolous people would themselves be found frivolous, and lose their reputations:
But another thing seems to me to give and to take away from reputation greatly, and this is our choice of the friends with whom we are to live in intimate relations; for doubtless reason requires that they who are joined in close amity and fast companionship, shall have their desires, souls, judgments and minds also in accord. Thus, he who consorts with the ignorant or wicked, is deemed ignorant or wicked; and on the contrary, he who consorts with the good, the wise, and the discreet, is himself deemed to be the like. Because by nature everything seems to join willingly with its like. Therefore I think we ought to use great care in beginning these friendships, for he who knows one of two close friends, at once imagines the other to be of the same quality.
In both cases, neither man is saying that all of our relationships must be serious ones. After all, serious friendships cannot arise until there is at least some initial contact based on a shared interest or experience. Social occasions, entertainments, or even chance meetings have always lead to more intimacy, both in the Renaissance Europe of St. Francis and Castiglione, as well as in our own day. And certainly in the present age social media has made it possible for more people living at wider distances from one another to be able to form new relationships.
What both men are saying, however, is that a love of the vapid and the shallow is ultimately not a good basis for forming anything. Society presently elevates and celebrates frivolous, ongoing sexual encounters among unmarried people, or staged weddings spread across the pages of glossy publicity magazines, as being equivalent to a solemn, sacramental marriage between two adults before God, and we can see where that has brought us. Therefore it should not surprise us to find that, similarly, “friendship” has been cheapened to something which is really little more than an acquaintanceship, at best, and at worst, possibly a bad influence on our intellectual, moral, and spiritual health.
When the world has gone topsy-turvy, and paradoxically embraced “no standards” as THE standard, we do not need to re-invent the wheel to try to look to some sanity about the example we set for others. History is there for us to make use of, if we will but take the time to do so. So I suggest, gentle reader, that you take the counsel of these two noble writers from one of the high periods of Western culture to heart, and consider whether you are wasting your time on frivolous relationships, or whether you are, in fact, working on forming true friendships which will do you, the other person, and society as a whole some good.
Detail of “Members of the Amsterdam Goldsmiths’ Guild” by Thomas de Keyser (1627)
Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio